Katrina Survivors Refuse to Be Forgotten
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Katrina Survivors Refuse to Be Forgotten
by Katherine Stapp
|NEW YORK - When Tanya Harris returned to what was left of her home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans earlier this month, she feared that her few remaining belongings would end up buried in the rubble being carted out of the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"People's property was being bulldozed, not just the streets," she said in a recent telephone press conference to announce the launch of the ACORN Katrina Survivor Association (AKSA).
"None of us have had access to that area," she said. "We wanted to make sure that we were able to go in and see what we could salvage."
Harris and a group of fellow neighbourhood residents in her southern U.S. city proceeded to put up hundreds of signs up that read, "Save Our Neighbourhood: No Bulldozing!"
"Many of our fights in the past have been David versus Goliath, and maybe this one will be too," Harris said. "But we don't intend to let business interests have unchecked control over how New Orleans is rebuilt."
A month after Hurricane Katrina swept through the U.S. Gulf Coast, killing at least 1,050 people in the state of Louisiana alone, many survivors have decided to take matters into their own hands, using public pressure, direct action, and dialogue with elected officials to demand the right of return -- starting with the provision of living trailers near their former homes -- and a greater voice in the rebuilding.
Katrina displaced an estimated 1.5 million people, who have scattered to cities around the country. With outreach focused on community meetings in those cities where Katrina survivors are found, AKSA has recruited about 1,600 members so far, and hopes to increase that number to 100,000 over the next year.
Backing the effort is the considerable organising power of ACORN, the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, a national group advocating for low- and moderate-income families that has 175,000 member families.
The group points to the myriad lapses of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in responding to the storm as evidence that the redevelopment of the region cannot be trusted to government officials alone.
"New Orleans is my home, I was born and raised there," said Dorothy Stoops from the city's Third Ward, who is now staying in Houston, Texas. "What our community experienced was not just a natural disaster but a harsh display of racist and economic injustice."
"Personally, I feel my government and my country have let me down -- that's how so many of us feel. At the Superdome (an enclosed football stadium) for four days and nights it was hell, I was treated like an animal, with soldiers pointing guns at me like I'd done something wrong instead of being uprooted by a natural tragedy."
"That's why we're coming together around the country to make sure our government doesn't forget about us as the weeks turn into months. We're here to make sure these cities are rebuilt for all people, not just the rich," Stoops said.
"I'm just angry," added 80-year-old Beulah Labostrie. "I have been here all of my life and I really have been hurt over the fact that in other areas of this community, there is help, tremendous help, but in the area that I and other minorities live, there is no response."
"I have called night and day, and I haven't got any response from FEMA or even Allstate (the nation's largest insurer). We somehow are the last to receive the help we need," she said.
Katie Neeson from Ward Nine, who evacuated to Dallas, Texas the day before the storm hit, also said she has received nothing from FEMA, although the agency is supposed to pay out about 800 dollars a month in housing assistance.
"I'm tired of borrowing money to make ends meet," she said. "I just received a notice on my door that rent is due Nov. 1 and I don't have it."
On Tuesday, the group sent a delegation to lobby Congress, which will be making key budget decisions in coming weeks, including a proposal by Republicans for another 70 billion dollars in tax cuts, most of which would go to people making more than 200,000 dollars a year.
Although legislators have already provided 62 billion dollars in emergency relief for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, AKSA and other groups want to make sure the rebuilding is conducted in a transparent way, with survivors having a say in all major decisions.
"We've got a fight ahead of us to make sure those left behind are not left behind in rebuilding," said Maude Hurd, a New Orleans resident and the national president of ACORN.
"We insist on having a seat at the table when decisions are being made and resources are being allocated. We are not allowing these billions of dollars to be spent without considering the needs of lower income and working class people."
In New York, African American labour and community groups held a meeting last weekend to discuss how to translate public outrage about the government's belated response to the disaster into a progressive campaign "to forge unity between the Black liberation struggle, the workers' struggle, and the anti-imperialist struggle".
"The disaster points to the depth of underdevelopment of the majority of African Americans, especially in the U.S. South," noted Saladin Muhammad, chair of Black Workers for Justice and the southern region coordinator of the Million Worker March Movement.
"And what happened is making people question the war and this (George W. Bush) administration's claims of building democracy abroad when it denies human rights and democracy at home," he said.
Malcolm Suber, a New Orleans resident for 27 years and an organiser with the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, said the government's treatment of survivors echoed the brutality of the slavery era in the United States.
"The method and means of getting us out left us on the auction block again," he said. "When you got on the bus, you didn't know where you were going. Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives got split up. There were police and soldiers with guns; they wouldn't let people off the bus even if you said hey, my kid's out there."
He noted that the crisis was a long time in developing, and grew out of the long history of racial oppression in the South.
"In New Orleans' inner city neighbourhoods, unemployment was 50 percent, and the drug trade was the number one employer. There was a lot of internecine warfare. New Orleans was leading the nation in the murder rate, and it wasn't unusual to wake up and hear that seven people were killed over the weekend," Suber said.
"We have to take this moment to lay out our principles. This is not the kind of society we want to live in," he concluded.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service